Butte explores toxicity as tourist attraction

BUTTE, Mont. — BUTTE, Mont. -- This was once "the Richest Hill on Earth." Home to vast mineral wealth, Butte was a storied mining town, providing one-third of the nation's copper for the dawning electric age more than a century ago.

Today, that hill has a hole, a toxic abyss framed by a gash where the land was. The pit, 1 by 1 1/2 miles, is the center of the nation's largest string of Superfund sites, stretching 140 miles mostly along waterways, local officials say.


With Old West moxie seeking to make lemonade out of a lemon, local officials have been turning the so-called Berkeley Pit into a public attraction, with a $2-per-person kitschy viewing deck and plans for a million-dollar interpretative museum.

Though the notion has been nationally lampooned, the town has been able to draw 20,000 to 35,000 visitors a year to the viewing deck. Heightening public fascination, scientists have made a bizarre discovery in the pit's rising acidic waters that kill any fish or migrating waterfowl.


A couple who are professors at Montana Tech have found microbes living in the toxicity - called "extremophiles" for their ability to live in extreme environments - and they say lab tests show the microorganisms have the potential to fight ovarian cancer, migraines and leukemia.

The search is dubbed "bioprospecting" - 21st-century mining in a 19th-century mine, which local officials playfully subtitled a "Search for Valuable Natural Products from a Most Unnatural World."

"That's the coolest thing about this - that toxic waste could yield compounds that could help fight diseases," said Andrea Stierle, 52, a research professor in chemistry at Montana Tech of the University of Montana. Her husband of 26 years, Don, 55, is a chemistry professor.

Though more ambitious than most, Butte is an example of the Old West seeking rebirth as the New West - a trend in which industrial uses of the land such as mining are replaced with activities for tourists, retirees, recreation fans and working professionals who love the Big Sky country.

The proximity of Yellowstone National Park has helped spur such transformations in Montana. Nearby Bozeman, in fact, is ridiculed as "Bozangeles" for its rapid growth. For Butte, the bioprospecting and the pit's cleanup are considered a way to stimulate economic development, said Jon Sesso, the city/county planning director.

"It's a great living workshop of environmental restoration. It's a laboratory" for innovative technologies on treating mine wastes, said Jim Smitham, 56, executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp. "The New West is new technology and science-based, and the Old West is extractive, and they can be complementary."

For all its ambitions, Butte struggles to balance the legacy of old mines with newer ones, including one right next to the Berkeley Pit.

"We've improved our environment to the point where we can be proud of what we've done rather than be a little bit sheepish," said Sesso, who's also a Democratic state legislator from Butte.


Still, the Berkeley Pit, which closed in 1983 and shortly afterward became a Superfund site, remains a serious problem as far as environmentalists and officials with the Environmental Protection Agency are concerned.

"I've been down there twice," EPA project manager Russ Forba said. "It's a pretty barren place. It's a pretty quiet place. There's no vegetation down there. It's kind of a lunar landscape with a body of water there. It's a strange, reddish-purple color."

Not all of Butte's mining has been rendered so stark.

Mining helped transform America into a superpower. Weapons-strengthening minerals helped the country win two world wars. The Butte Miners' Union No. 1 empowered the labor movement and helped establish Butte as the nation's "Gibraltar of Unionism" more than 100 years ago.

But Butte is also home to the world's worst disaster in a hard-rock mine (as opposed to a coal mine): 168 miners killed in 1917.

The size of the local National Historic District, extending from struggling downtown Butte to nearby Anaconda where smelting was done, is among the nation's largest landmark districts, bigger than New Orleans' district, local officials said.


Butte was mocked this year by Comedy Central's The Daily Show for its toxic-site-as-tourist-trap plans. Many residents weren't amused.

"We take these obstacles and turn them into selling points," said county archivist Ellen Crain. "It's a mind-set here. We're going to cure cancer with that water."

Meanwhile, water in the pit steadily rises by 6 feet a year, making for a veritable lake with a depth of 1,000 feet. By 2020, the bathtub of acid is expected to reach a "critical water level," where it could threaten an aquifer that provides drinking water, federal officials said.

At that point, Berkeley Pit owner Montana Resources and Atlantic Richfield, the former owner of the pit, whose mineral-laden waters are still mined for copper, will pump and treat the water "forever," under a consent decree between the mining companies and the government, the EPA's Forba said.

In all, the cleanup is expected to cost $1 billion, officials said.

With a population of about 33,000 people, Butte is a shadow of its heyday in 1917, when the city and its bustling Uptown district had more than 100,000 people.


Tom Mulcahy, 74, a former director of sales for the San Diego Padres, is among new retirees in Butte.

Mulcahy's return earlier this year is personal. His grandfathers were miners here and he grew up in Butte. Standing in the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives on a recent day, he pointed out how the building had been a fire station, where his father worked, slept and slid down a long-gone pole as a firefighter.

"It's a great place," Mulcahy said. "It's beautiful, and all you have to look at is the mountains and highlands and it's gorgeous."

Michael Martinez writes for the Chicago Tribune.